The Allegory of the Cave is one of Plato's famous works that has generated a lot of discussions debates among scholars and academicians. It deals with a philosophy that human beings are trapped inside their own bodies and they see things only through their own limited vision. Being victims of circumstances and their own actions (chained in such a way that they could look only forward and not backwards), they are only able to visualise what is in front of them, and that too, only shadows, or forms of what is actually transpiring in their lives. Since what they see are only forms reflected from the shadows created fire, their interpretations of living may be quite different. Similar it is with the emission of sounds which are also subject to different interpretations by chained prisoners. Plato also considers a situation in which a chained prisoner is redeemed and brought to the outside world.
At first sight he is bewildered and amazed at the actual sights that he sees. In other words Plato wants to signify the element of surprise at what happens when people see the actual reality in this world or when they seek philosophical enlightenment and gains wisdom through it. What Plato wishes to convey through "Allegory of the Cave" is that we are all chained down to our own feelings and emotions and are led by the forms and sounds which we see or hear around us. Rather than seeking to find the true light (which is outside the cave) and experienced life and reality as it really is, we are all trapped and chained to our emotions and sentiments, not of true realities, but of our own interpretations of realities as shown through the forms appearing against the fire. Man, instead of trying to find out and realize the real truth, is content, or is forced to be content with the shadows that play in front of him.
Again as seen in this allegory, the few who have been able to come out of the caves of their own minds and thinking, and having tasted the wisdom of the real truth, wish to come back to the cave and free the others who are still languishing in the bondage of ignorance and false truths. But, unfortunately, the prisoners are not in a mental state to accept this new knowledge. Perhaps their minds have been transfixed to their current mode of thinking and existences and would not be able to accept to the enlightened philosophies and wisdom provided and preached by the others who have been fortunate to come out of this ignorant state of mind and existence.
Plato's allegory of the cave is, according to this writer, a state of mind of us humans, who remain trapped within the caves of their own minds and inhibitions, without any knowledge or awareness of the outside world. To most of us, the existence of the outside world of reality is also unknown. Trapped and chained to the pleasures of the world, and having only limited and dubious knowledge provided by the shadows of realities on earth, people eke out their existence on a daily basis, one day more agonizing than the other. Even when people who have seen the actual reality (philosophers) come to advise us about the need to change and see the reality, we are unable to do so and stay prisoners of our minds, unwilling or rather unable to come out of our limited wisdom and knowledge of the world around us.
'The Cave' is a grim reminder of our own limitations and failings, our lives steeped in darkness and false beliefs and values from which there is no respite or release, until perhaps our death and virtual extinction from this earth happens. It also signifies the closeting of our true existence in the murk of ignorance and superstitions, limiting our own thinking without making efforts for broadening our thinking and leading more productive and purposeful lives on earth, for our own betterment.
(a)Three ways in which the prisoners in the cave are, as Socrates says, just like us
The three ways in which the prisoners in the cave remain just like us, are
- In terms of the fact that we remain prisoners of our senses and limits to thinking
- Not able to see the true reality but only seeing the shadows or forms of different aspects of living and forming tentative guesses or conjectures from these forms
- Our inability to seek out the truth of our own existence and the purpose of living even when we are informed about it by wise men and philosophers
According to Socrates, we human beings are constantly living in a caged or caved existence and simply refuse to come out of the limited thinking. We do not, or seldom care not to introspect about the past (we are chained in such a way that we can look only ahead and not backwards) nor can we use past experienced to offer informed wisdom about the present and the future. Our lives are destined to be spent in the deep dungeons of negative thinking and improper actions, concerned only about our own chained and challenged existence, each person thinking how best he could come out of this predicament he finds himself in, but not able to do so since we are chained by our own thinking and perception about life and all that it stands for. We are inclined to be philosophical minded and stoically accept our destiny which has been imposed upon us by our own mindsets and attitudes. The Cave, in Plato's allegory is the human mind which encapsules all his emotions, attitudes and experiences and from which there is limited relief. It could also symbolize the crude and unrefined nature of human thoughts and actions, bound, as it were, in ignorance, superstition and unwise habits and inclinations
Further, the prisoners in the cave are just like us, because we do not try to pursue and gain the reality and the truth of our existence. We are content in what appears to us, in the manner of forms or shadows, which may not be the actual reality but only a glimpse of the happenings in the world, perhaps in a disguised form. The forms and shadows that appear to the chained prisoners are subject to their own interpretation and explanation. Three prisoners may interpret the same form or shadow in different ways the perception of, each suiting to his own view of life. Similar is the case with our own lives and limited existence. What we see in this world is not the real truth but our own subjective analysis and interpretation of the truth and reality of living as we conceive it. The forms that sprung forth from shadows of the fire are not the ultimate reality but one's own interpretation and analysis of it. The visual imagery of forms and shadows cast from the different movements in the sidewalks of life, conjures both negative and positive images in the minds of people. The different sounds that are emitted are also interpreted differently.
The grotesque forms and eerie sounds may not be the true experiences but the reflections and reactions of the troubled and tortured minds of the prisoners. We need to come out of these caves of our minds and thinking and learning the philosopher's true experience of what the world actually is and the beauty and splendor of nature and all that it stands for. The earth, the sky, stars and the sun, etc are all part of human existence on earth and must be seen and enjoyed, rather than limiting our minds to dubious forms and imagery shadows which do not show the true meaning and interpretation of life on this earth. Human beings need to experience life and living as it actually is, and not as it is portrayed to be through visual images and flickering shadows.
The sights and sounds of life need to be experienced first hand and not the kind that is imagined by humans which may be very far from the truth. Just as a prisoner is first shocked and amazed when he comes into contact with the true light, it takes time for him to adjust from the darkness and emptiness of the cave to the splendour and beauty of the outside world, so also, we humans need to come out of the dungeons of our own thinking, and experience the true beauty of life in all its gorgeous resplendence. It is a sight that is as awesome as it is pleasing, and philosophy provides the true light and wisdom through which we could experiences this raptous and singularly exhilarating experience by opening our minds and souls to the ultimate reality
However, sadly, most people are not able to transcend the limitations of their own mindsets and attitudes and accept philosophy in all its pristine glory and magnificence. Even when people who have truly felt and experienced the sensual taste of philosophical awareness were to relate and narrate their experiences to us, we are not inclined to accept or honour them. We ridicule them and stay locked up in the deep caverns of our own limited and selfish thinking. Some of us do not even possess the fundamental potential and awareness to accept and imbibe fresh thoughts and ideas- so steeped are we in the deep caves of ignorance, superstition and false, miscued beliefs that serve more to constrict our knowledge rather than release the chains of our own thinking and perceptions. Man needs to break free of the shackles of his own thinking and escape from the dark caves of his miserable existence. Instead, he must live a full and contented life surrounding with wise men and guides who could provide him the ultimate key to salvation and release from worldly bondage.
(b) What you think can be done to remedy these three situations?
We must cease remaining prisoners to our own minds and habits. We should strive to break loose from the inhibitions and restrictions of our own thinking and this could be done by embracing the tenets of genuine philosophical thoughts and actions. Through imbibing and thus resetting our minds and through processes towards philosophical beliefs and precepts, in effect, we are breaking open the chains and bondage of restrictive and negative thinking and beliefs. Thus we will be and embracing, at it were, the true essence and meaning of living on earth. What we are seeing around us now are just forms and shadows of true living but through an active pursuit of philosophy we would be able to cast aside these shadows and doubts of our existence and live in spiritual bliss and contentment, which are most significant achievements for a human soul.